WESTFIELD — A member of the Westfield Board of Education (BOE) who has been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic ideologies is facing her second state-level ethics complaint of the year. The complaint, filed with the School Ethics Commission by board member Brendan Galligan, alleges that Sahar Aziz, the board’s former vice-president, unlawfully directed a district-funded attorney to launch a retaliatory investigation against the superintendent of schools and several other members of the board in pursuit of her own legal interests.
“The filing of a formal ethics complaint is the most serous action one individual can take against a sitting board member, and is not to be taken lightly,” Mr. Galligan said via written communication with The Westfield Leader. “A well-functioning board requires trust, amicability among board members, and a common belief that everyone is there with the same end goal: do the best we can for the students with the limited resources available.”
If the School Ethics Commission (a state-level oversight board of gubernatorial appointees) finds that Ms. Aziz violated the law in relation to either Mr. Galligan’s complaint or an earlier one filed initially on behalf of Westfield resident Stephanie Siegel back in February, state statute (NJSA 18A:12-29(c)) provides for four possible remedies: reprimand (an informal admonishment), censure (a formal declaration of misconduct), temporary suspension, or, in more extreme cases, removal from the board.
The first complaint, which was eventually amended and re-filed by the Deborah Project on Ms. Siegel’s behalf, alleges that Ms. Aziz violated the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by frequently tweeting and re-tweeting content pertaining to Islam, Palestine and the Jewish community and without differentiating her personal opinions from those of the school board and the district it represents. In her complaint, Ms. Siegel labels many of the social media posts as discriminatory and anti-Semitic.
Upon receipt of Ms. Siegel’s initial complaint, Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D., and the district’s business administrator, Patricia Ramos, notified the district’s liability insurance carrier, the New Jersey School Insurance Group, of the pending legal claim as per board policy.
According to background information provided by Mr. Galligan’s complaint, the insurance company then designated attorney Matthew Giacobbe of Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri, Jacobs, LLC, to represent Ms. Aziz as the matter progressed.
In accordance with state law, the first $5,000 of her legal expenses are paid directly by the district, while any remaining costs were absorbed by its insurance provider.
Mr. Galligan’s complaint, filed with the state on September 27, alleges that Ms. Aziz “became openly hostile towards and suspicious” towards Dr. González and several current and former members of the board (Mr. Galligan, Robert Benacchio, Amy Root and Michael Bielen) shortly after receiving Ms. Siegel’s complaint.
On March 3, Ms. Aziz directed Mr. Giacobbe’s paralegal to submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to the district for “any and all emails to and from the members of the Board of Education from November 21 to present regarding Sahar Aziz and the ethics complaint filed by Stephanie Siegel.”
A second OPRA request, submitted by Mr. Giacobbe’s paralegal on March 17, requested another search of all emails sent between Ms. Siegel, her husband, Kyle George, and each of the aforementioned district representatives, including from their personal email addresses..
According to the new complaint, Ms. Aziz then “baselessly and without evidence” accused Dr. González and the four past and present board members of “colluding” with Ms. Siegel in her efforts to bring legal action against. Ms. Aziz.
“The only purpose [Ms. Aziz] would have in directing the attorney to investigate other members of the Board and the Superintendent of Schools would be in the hopes of finding evidence that [she] could use to file a retaliatory ethics complaint,” Mr. Galligan wrote in his complaint. “[Her] unilateral decision to direct a board-provided attorney to investigate elected officials, private citizens and school personnel is a gross abuse of the public trust, violating the spirit and letter of the School Ethics Act and approaching criminality.”
Ms. Aziz, as a sitting member of the board, voted to approve the $5,000 payment to the law firm during a regular meeting of the BOE held in July, several months after directing the attorney to send out the OPRA requests. In his complaint Mr. Galligan alleges that Ms. Aziz should have recused herself from the vote as the action served as a direct benefit to herself.
Mr. Giacobbe later filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Siegel’s complaint, stating in May that the allegations constituted “a personal attack on Ms. Aziz’s viewpoints and misconstrue her scholarship and tweets on religious freedom and Palestinian human rights as against the Jewish community.”
But while the School Ethics Commission has yet to reach a decision regarding Ms. Siegel’s complaint, tensions have continued to build between Ms. Aziz and other members of the board.
In August, Mr. Galligan made a public motion to have her removed from the board for violating the board’s meeting attendance policy. The motion was overturned shortly thereafter despite initial support by the board.
Meanwhile, an online petition to have Ms. Aziz removed from her position on the board has garnered more than 4,800 signatures since being posted to Change.org earlier this month.
Mr. Galligan said last week that he did not make the decision to file his complaint lightly.
“I waited for a very specific reason: I did not want to have to file the complaint at all,” he said. “I value a well-functioning board over all else, and while I found Ms. Aziz’s actions to be reprehensible, I had hoped that by waiting to file, that Ms. Aziz would change course and become a board member who fully participates in all obligations of the board and contributes in a meaningful way, and I afforded Ms. Aziz the maximum amount of time under the law, before reluctantly filing my complaint.”
Dr. González said that while he has been made aware of Mr. Galligan’s recent filing, “the district does not comment on ethics complaints as they pertain to specific individuals and not to the board or district as a whole.”
Requests for comment by Ms. Aziz were not returned at the time of publication.